Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 28.10.14

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Blustery winds set the cat among the pigeons in no uncertain terms, or rather, stimulated by the arrival of them, the local rooks suddenly ran amok. It was as if the local community of ‘crows’ had been waiting for the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo to pitch up. Perhaps they had seen the weather forecasts on television; more likely are they to be much more sensitive to changing air pressures and the inevitable arrival of a deep Low pressure system with its tightening isobars, than we mere mortals. The fact was that whether or not they knew what was coming, once it got here they decided to enjoy it!

Indeed, the sky here was filled with rooks, in company with a number of jackdaws, as they tilted at the wind, sailing blithely into the teeth of the at times, gale force winds and then letting rip with all sorts of aerial gyrations. Nothing will ever convince me that the ‘black’ members of the crow clan – the crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws – are averse to playing games and consequently absolutely delight in such windy conditions in order to grab the opportunity to play … with great gusto. That is something that I firmly believe is the very essence of their temperaments. Crows may be black and therefore sinister in the eyes of those who don’t like them but they are without any doubt, fun loving!

The same appetite to play on the wind does not seem to seize all crows however, for although I have seen plenty of evidence that magpies are enthused by some aspects of play, they never seem to tilt at the wind in the same way as the rooks. And jays, the most colourful members of that clan don’t seem be enthused by rising winds either! Are they I wonder, the more seriously minded inhabitants of ‘crow-land’?

Play is perhaps something we more readily associate with kittens or puppies … or even with fox and badger cubs. Indeed, I have spent time watching and indeed being amused by the playful antics of fox and badger cubs, which certainly also play with great gusto. Such play has a purpose of course and play fighting helps siblings to establish family pecking orders albeit that I’m not quite sure how to unravel relationships within incidents in which fox and badger cubs play together. Such an activity I have sometimes speculated, might be contrary to the desires of parent badgers which, being so tidily minded, probably regard the much more ‘slap-dash’, uncouth foxes as undesirable playmates for their off-spring!

Child psychologists could doubtless write reams on the developmental implications of play patterns in children, which are clearly also a vital part of childhood experience and are very much a part of growing up and preparation for adult life. Play patterns in birds however, are rather more difficult perhaps to interpret. For one thing, the play I have described in rooks, is not by any means, an activity restricted to juvenile birds. Indeed, the participants are universal with whole flocks of birds, presumably comprising birds of all ages, including those in their dotage, taking part, all with the kind of enthusiasm and energy one might naturally associate with youngsters.

Perhaps, had the incident recorded, with masses of rooks tumbling about the sky, occurred this evening, it would have been attributed to some kind of ghoulish dance of witches, or indeed the spirits of Halloween running riot on the wind in some sort of dance of dervishes. However, as such demonstrations of ‘rook power’ are likely to occur on any day on which the wind really gets up, such associations are surely erroneous. Furthermore I cannot but reflect on the infectious nature of these bouts of play. It seems to start with one or two birds, their gyrations suddenly acting as a stimulus to others until the mood sweeps through a whole community of them. Eventually, the sky is full of hurtling birds!

This chain reaction certainly fits the communal lifestyle that dominates the rook way of life. However, there is a hierarchical structure to it with a clear discrimination between senior members of a flock and the more junior members, which suggests a degree of ageism! Senior members of rook communities, get the easier living and thus the choice of the very best eateries. They will, more often than not occupy for instance, the prime ground in a field where there are large numbers of the invertebrates upon which rooks delight in feeding. 

The more junior members will be on the periphery of a feeding flock, albeit that they may also be required to undertake ‘sentry’ duties by keeping their eyes open for any potential threats. In this respect, such behaviour is another demonstration of organisation. Some members of a feeding flock will be delegated with the duties of ‘look outs’. They apparently all know their place in the scheme of rook living! Incidentally, rooks are pretty sharp eyed and should you approach such a feeding flock with a stick in your hand, they will very likely take flight. Whilst they are clever, rooks do not seem to have the ability to discriminate between a stick and a gun! Without the said stick, you’ll accordingly get a lot nearer!

Rooks have not generally had a good press, for generations of crop farmers in many parts of the world have waged war against what they have always perceived as, thieves of vast quantities of grain from their fields. However, whilst some research indicates that grain represents a substantial part of the rook diet, it also points towards the bulk of that grain being gleaned from stubble or being un-germinated, neither of which of course, hit the farmers’ pockets. There is plenty of evidence to show that rooks do not eat germinating grain at all and that their preference is indeed for the pests that destroy such crops. The fact that grain takes a lot more time to be digested further distorts the balances and on the other hand, the substantial number of easily digested but harmful pests consumed by rooks perceived to be eating grain, save those same farmers a good deal of money.

Many years ago that doyen of Scottish naturalists, the late David Stephen, conducted an examination of the food found in the crops of a quantity of dead rooks. There was little in the way of grain and plenty of pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. But of course, rooks are ‘black’ birds and as such, have always induced the jaundiced eye! 

The reality is that rooks are highly intelligent, fun-loving birds that almost certainly do more good than harm. The next time the wind blows, just get out there and watch and absorb their exuberant flying displays. Rejoice, it’s playtime! It really will lift your spirits.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods